On June 8th Children’s Home & Aid and our Ahlquist Center for Policy, Practice & Innovation will host Breaking Barriers. Centering Families. Transforming Systems., a virtual event that will explore what it will take to create a more equitable future for children and families, free from the barriers created by racism, poverty, and trauma.

How is Children’s Home & Aid, with the help of our generous community of donors and funders and partners, working right now to break barriers, center families and transform systems?

Over the past year, we have seen firsthand the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the 30,000 children and families we partner with across Illinois, many living in communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. The pandemic exacerbated many issues our families already face—including poverty, chronic stress and mental health issues, and joblessness—while layering on new challenges.

Our staff on the front lines reflect on their experiences and the barriers created by increased mental health needs in particular.

Amanda Whitlock, Senior Vice President of Child Welfare and Behavioral Health, says, “We’ve seen how existing stress, diminishing social supports, isolation, and school closures have all contributed to a sharp rise in mental health issues among our youth and families.” In fact, at the end of 2020, over 40% of Americans nationwide reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. Amanda adds, “We prioritize providing therapy and crisis intervention in communities where historic inequalities and systematic racism have created barriers to access for care.”

Virtual programming has offered new options to reach isolated communities. In Central Illinois’ rural counties, Children’s Home & Aid’s Butterfly Project—a mental health program designed for young children under 13 who have been exposed to violence – is one of the few mental health resources in the area. Pre-pandemic, our workers often spent hours driving between appointments. Virtual appointments have made the program more accessible.

Tiffanny Powell, Director of Family Support Services, shares, “By providing therapeutic services online, we could reach even more families over the past year by eliminating the need for transportation, which is a key barrier to accessing services here in rural Illinois.”

In Chicago families with infants and very young children in Greater Englewood also struggle with increased trauma and isolation. The Mitzi Freidheim Englewood Child & Family Center annually provides 200 young children aged 0-5 and their families with family-centered programming.

Living in one of the city areas impacted by COVID-19 infection, Englewood families faced additional devastation from the death of love ones to the virus coupled with a sudden increase in unemployment, food insecurity, social isolation, and community unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“Trauma is often multigenerational, and many of our parents never found support to address traumatic experiences from their own childhood,” notes Vice President of Early Childhood Services Dawnielle Jeffrey. “When adults cascade stress down to children, it can lead to an increase in children’s behavioral issues. In early childhood we understand how trauma can have long-lasting consequences for young children can have who have limited coping skills.”

Our early childhood programs have increased mental health services for both in-person and remote learning families. We’ve expanded training for teachers to better understand and address traumatic stress in the classroom.

In southern Illinois, we also see the impact of unaddressed childhood trauma. Every day in East St. Louis and the surrounding communities, our Youth Services staff meet young people facing unimaginable barriers to success, including runaway and homeless youth, who are far more likely than their peers to get caught up in risky or violence behavior.

“We approach our work with teens by asking “what does this youth need to succeed – to finish high school, obtain a job, heal a relationship with family?” says Regional Vice President Renae Storey. “Then together, our staff and the youth and their family work on addressing those challenges.”

As youth violence is often the result of economic inequality and injustice, we also advocate for our young people within the court system. “We know that childhood trauma affects brain development and impacts the likelihood of violence later in life,” says Renae. “We need to change the question from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you and what do you need?’.”

She adds, “It’s not only about breaking barriers but transforming whole systems.”

To that end, across Illinois our Ahlquist Center for Policy, Practice and Innovation is advocating for state and national policy and practice changes by listening to what our youth and families need. One way we advocate for families is working to expand the Earned Income Credit, as highlighted in our recent podcast. We are partnering with legislators and over 30 other organizations throughout the state to expand the current credit to an additional 1.24 million Illinoisans which will fight poverty and provide families with more resources to make ends meet.

Join us to continue the conversation on Tuesday June 8 for Breaking Barriers. Centering Families. Transforming Systems.